The war in Ukraine may be unstoppable. And the United States deserves a lot of the blame

Writing in the Parisian daily Le Figaro this month, Henri Guaino, one of Nicolas Sarkozy’s top advisers when he was president of France, warned that European countries, under the short-sighted leadership of the United States, were “sleepwalking” into the war with Russia. Mr. Guaino was borrowing a metaphor that historian Christopher Clark used to describe the origins of the First World War.

Naturally, Mr. Guaino understands that Russia is most directly responsible for the current conflict in Ukraine. It was Russia that massed its troops on the border last fall and winter and – after demanding a number of Ukraine-related security guarantees from NATO that NATO rejected – began the bombardments and killings on February 24.

But the United States helped transform this tragic, local and ambiguous conflict into a potential global conflagration. By misunderstanding the logic of war, Mr. Guaino argues, the West, led by the Biden administration, is giving the conflict momentum that may be unstoppable.

He is right.

In 2014, the United States supported an uprising – in its final stage a violent uprising – against the legitimately elected Ukrainian government of Viktor Yanukovych, which was pro-Russian. (The corruption of Mr. Yanukovych’s government has been much talked about by rebellion advocates, but corruption is an ongoing Ukrainian problem, even today.) Russia, in turn, annexed Crimea, a part historically Russian-speaking Ukraine which since the 18th century had housed the Russian Black Sea Fleet.

One can argue about Russian claims to Crimea, but the Russians take them seriously. Hundreds of thousands of Russian and Soviet fighters died defending the Crimean city of Sevastopol against European forces during two sieges, one during the Crimean War and the other during World War II. In recent years, Russian control of Crimea has seemed to provide a stable regional arrangement: Russia’s European neighbors, at least, have let the sleeping dogs lie.

But the United States never agreed to the arrangement. On November 10, 2021, the United States and Ukraine signed a “strategic partnership charter” that called on Ukraine to join NATO, condemned “ongoing Russian aggression” and affirmed an “unwavering commitment” to the reintegration of Crimea into Ukraine.

This charter “convinced Russia that she had to attack or be attacked,” Mr. Guaino wrote. “It is the inescapable process of 1914 in all its terrifying purity.”

This is an accurate account of the war that President Vladimir Putin claimed to be waging. “There were constant supplies of the most modern military equipment,” Putin said at Russia’s annual Victory Parade on May 9, referring to Ukraine’s foreign weaponry. “The danger was growing every day.”

Whether he was right to worry about Russia’s security depends on one’s point of view. Western news reports tend to discount it.

The turbulent course of the war in Ukraine so far has confirmed Mr. Putin’s diagnosis, if not his conduct. Although Ukraine’s military industry was large during the Soviet era, in 2014 the country barely had a modern military. The oligarchs, not the state, have armed and funded some of the militias sent to fight Russian-backed separatists in the east. The United States began arming and training the Ukrainian military, tentatively at first under President Barack Obama. However, modern hardware started circulating under the Trump administration and today the country is armed to the teeth.

Since 2018, Ukraine has received American-made Javelin anti-tank missiles, Czech artillery and Turkish Bayraktar drones and other NATO interoperable weapons. The United States and Canada recently sent modern British-designed M777 howitzers that fire GPS-guided Excalibur rounds. President Biden just signed into law a $40 billion military aid bill.

In this light, the mockery of Russia’s performance on the battlefield is misplaced. Russia is not blocked by a brave agricultural country one-third its size; it stands its ground, at least for now, against NATO’s advanced economic, cyber and battlefield weapons.

And this is where Mr. Guaino is right to accuse the West of sleepwalking. The United States tries to maintain the fiction that arming its allies is not the same as participating in combat.

In the information age, this distinction becomes increasingly artificial. The United States provided intelligence used to kill Russian generals. He obtained targeting information that helped sink the Russian Black Sea missile cruiser Moskva, an incident in which around 40 sailors were killed.

And the United States could play an even more direct role. There are thousands of foreign fighters in Ukraine. A volunteer spoke to the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation this month about fighting alongside “friends” who “come from the Marines, from the United States”. Just as it is easy to cross the line between being an arms supplier and being a fighter, it is easy to cross the line between waging a proxy war and waging a covert war.

More subtly, a country trying to wage such a war risks being dragged from partial to full involvement by the force of moral reasoning. Perhaps US officials justify arms exports as they justify their budgeting: it’s so powerful it’s a deterrent. Money is well spent because it buys peace. If bigger guns fail to deter, they lead to bigger wars.

A handful of people died in Russia’s 2014 takeover of Crimea. But this time around, matched in weaponry – and even surpassed in some cases – Russia has returned to a bombing war that looks more to World War II.

Even if we do not accept Mr. Putin’s assertion that the American arming of Ukraine is the primary reason the war took place, it is certainly the reason why the war took the form kinetic, explosive and murderous she has. Our role in this regard is neither passive nor incidental. We have given the Ukrainians reason to believe that they can prevail in an escalation war.

Thousands of Ukrainians died who probably would not have if the United States had stood aside. This can naturally create in American policymakers a sense of moral and political obligation – to stay the course, to escalate the conflict, to deal with any excesses.

The United States has shown itself not only likely to escalate, but also prone to do so. In March, Mr Biden invoked God before insisting that Mr Putin “cannot stay in power”. In April, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin explained that the United States was looking to “see Russia weakened”.

Noam Chomsky warned against the paradoxical incentives of such “heroic statements” in an April interview. “It can sound like Winston Churchill impersonations, very exciting,” he said. “But what they translate is: Destroy Ukraine.”

For similar reasons, Mr. Biden’s suggestion that Mr. Putin be tried for war crimes is an act of consummate irresponsibility. The accusation is so serious that once made, it discourages restraint; after all, a leader who commits one atrocity is no less a war criminal than one who commits a thousand. The effect, intentional or not, is to preclude any recourse to peace negotiations.

The situation on the battlefield in Ukraine has evolved to a delicate stage. Russia and Ukraine suffered heavy losses. But each has also made gains. Russia has a land bridge to Crimea and controls some of Ukraine’s most fertile farmland and energy deposits, and in recent days it has kept up the momentum of the battlefield. Ukraine, after a strong defense of its cities, can expect additional support, know-how and armaments from NATO – a powerful incentive not to end the war any time soon.

But if the war does not end soon, its dangers will increase. “Negotiations must begin within the next two months,” former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger warned last week, “before this creates upheaval and tension that will not be easily overcome.” Calling for a return to the status quo ante bellum, he added: “To continue the war beyond this point would not be about Ukraine’s freedom but about a new war against Russia itself.”

In this, Mr. Kissinger is on the same page as Mr. Guaino. “To make concessions to Russia would be to submit to aggression,” Mr. Guaino warned. “To do none would be to submit to madness.”

The United States makes no concessions. It would be losing face. There is an election coming up. Thus, the administration closes the avenues of negotiation and works to intensify the war. We are here to earn it. Over time, the huge importation of lethal weapons, including those from the newly authorized $40 billion allocation, could take the war to a different level. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky warned in an address to students this month that the bloodiest days of the war were approaching.

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